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Recycled Archives

Recycling - the possibilities are endless! by Pamela Birch

These days we are, quite rightly, urged to reuse and recycle but of course this is not a new idea. The archives we hold give evidence for this not in the text that may be written on them but in the materials from which they are made.

Board and papermaking have always used recycled materials. The finest milled board, used in book covers from the 17th century onwards, was made from, amongst other things, old hemp rope. From its introduction in this country in the 14th century until the 19th century paper was made from recycled linen and cotton rags rather than virgin materials. Although the reason for the Burial in Woollen Acts is usually explained as a way of boosting the wool trade they also helped to save linen and cotton for paper. Dard Hunter explains that ‘in one year approximately 200,000 pounds of linen and cotton were saved for the papermakers by this edict’ (Papermaking, Dover, 1978 p311). Whilst the finest animal glue is made from rabbits, most was made from the recycled bones of larger animals. The need for these materials gave us the rag and bone men whose mangled cry many of us still remember and whose trade goes back to at least the 16th century.

Bookbinders have frequently reused materials in the bindings of new books. The reformation meant that hymnals etc. used in the Catholic Church were no longer required and the vellum and parchment on which they were written could be used for book covers. There are several examples of 16th century parish records covered in earlier religious documents in our collections– in some examples the covers were removed and flattened in the early 20th century to allow the covers to be studied in their own right. [Ref..P40/1/9].

Oakley Parish Registry Cover

It was not only obsolete religious documents that were used for this purpose. Often deeds, incomplete, with mistakes or cancelled, were reused as book covers. While it is possible to clean text off parchment this is time consuming so usually these documents were just used with the text to the inside of the book.

Two books in our collections, which show recycling at work, are particular favourites of mine. GA2381(below) is a little book bound in 1652 by a Mr Goodall, who was clearly not a professional binder, using pages from a 14th century homily. The book contains a long theological letter to Elizabeth Buswell, wife of George Buswell of Clipston, Northants and daughter of Harold Kynnesman of Broughton, Northants. The letter was from her brother whose exact identity has not yet been traced and the book passed down to Elizabeth’s youngest daughter Frances. Frances married into a Bedfordshire family and hence the book came into our collections.

Frances Stafford book

A manor court book for Arlesey Bury dated 1697, not only has a recycled deed as its covering material [Ref.HA4/1 inside back cover, left] but also shows evidence of recycling in its boards. It was common for binders of stationery items to also run businesses supplying papers hangings and these two trades are frequently mentioned together in binders’ plates and advertisements, as with this one of 1804:

J Webb Advert

The overlap between these two sides of the business is the only explanation I can come up with for the impressions on the boards. On the front board we find a Chinaman and a spotty dog, while on the back a jester dances through the foliage.

These are just a few examples of books that tell a story not just by their contents but also by their covers. The work and expense undertaken in construction can indicate the document’s status in the eyes of the original owner and tell you more about its provenance. In order to preserve all the valuable information conveyed by the original binding and construction it is important to handle them carefully, consider what stress may be caused to the sewing, the spine and the covering materials and to use book rests appropriately. You cannot always tell a book by its cover but the cover can tell more about the book.